By Yousof Azizi
Iran's new administration has concluded its lengthy internal review on how, and with what new strategies, to return to the Vienna nuclear talks, to find out practical solutions to the current impasse in reviving the 2015 agreement.
The negotiations have been halted since Iran's presidential election in June 2021 but are set to resume on Monday. Although Iran and the United States are very skeptical about the other side's intention and seriousness toward restoring the nuclear deal, there is no better and viable alternative than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to resolve Iran's nuclear program.
Under the agreement, Iran temporarily dismantled much of its nuclear program and permanently gave international inspectors extensive access to its facilities in exchange for relief from international economic sanctions. President Trump withdrew from the JCPOA in, 2018 purportedly to renegotiate a “better deal.” One year after Washington reimposed unilateral sanctions, Iran started to gradually reduce its obligations under the deal, and has advanced its nuclear capabilities far beyond 2015 capacity. The Biden administration must prioritize its efforts to restore the deal to advance international and regional security.
The Iranian nuclear file has been the only case among the various disputes between Iran and the West that still has the capability to reach a consensus between all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Iran would also like the issue to be resolved peacefully, while maintaining its international rights for a civilian nuclear program based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so that Iran pays the least cost to secure its prestige and rights.
In this respect, the JCPOA has already proven to satisfy all parties in the long-term. For example, according to the deal, if restored, all parties in about two years will consider “Transition Day,” which will trigger the United Nations to lift missile restrictions, the European Union to terminate all remaining nuclear sanctions, the United States to seek legislative termination or modification of certain sanctions, and, most importantly, Iran to seek permanent ratification of the Additional Protocol in the Iranian parliament.
Under the Additional Protocol and other strong monitoring mechanisms designated under the JCPOA, the International Atomic Energy Agency is granted expanded rights of access to information and locations in Iran, 24/7. This enables the agency to obtain a much fuller picture of Iran's nuclear program, plan, and nuclear material holding and trade. The Additional Protocol increases the IAEA's ability to carry out inspections at undeclared nuclear sites and activities in Iran on short notice to provide much greater assurance on the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program. The ratification of the Additional Protocol by Iran in 2023, instead of the voluntary agreement to comply, will boost the international community's confidence in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
The Obama administration viewed the nuclear deal with Iran as a first step in opening the door to other contentious issues, such as Iran's missile and military capabilities and the influence of Iran and its allies in the West Asia region and Persian Gulf. The U.S. goal, which has remained the same under the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, has been to have comprehensive regional security talks with Iran.
However, each administration adopted a different tactics. For example, the Trump administration took a failed unilateral approach, in contrast to the Obama administration's multilateralism. Iran rejected the Trump administration's call for comprehensive talks with Iran, which covered all issues at stake, including nuclear negotiations and regional security talks, and it also lacked international support. The first step to reach comprehensive negotiations is therefore to resolve the nuclear issue, which will then open the pathway to build up mutual understandings and interests.
The United States, regardless of the administration and its party affiliation, wants to divert its security resources to East Asia. China is the only rising world power that is now a serious competitor to the United States in economic, financial, technology, military, and security aspects and will become a “peer competitor” in the next decades. At a time when the United States is spending on its endless wars in the Middle East and its military expenditure around the world, China's exploding economic growth has led most analysts to see China as the world's premier economic power over the next decade.
If the negotiation over the restoration of the JCPOA fails, it can be assumed that Iran's nuclear activities will expand, Iran will heavily reduce its cooperation with the IAEA, and Iran will show more aggressive behaviors in other areas, such as missiles and regional hegemony. In this scenario, it's unclear whether the United States has the potential to tighten economic sanctions against Iran, already in its maximum capacity. The escalation of sanctions against Iran is currently not an easy and viable option. the U.S. capacity to impose more economic sanctions on Iran has long ago reached its maximum. Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security adviser said as much last October. “One of the problems that we have with both Iran and Russia is that we have so many sanctions out on those countries right now that there's very little left for us to do,” he said.
One of the reasons the JCPOA didn't succeed was because the Obama administration had only one year to strengthen its foundation. President Obama had to deal with a tangled web of sanctions regulations against Iran, which had been accumulated for decades through congressional bills and presidential executive orders.
If the Biden administration seeks to build on the nuclear deal for further talks, meaning regional security, the administration must immediately re-enter the JCPOA and let Iran receive its legitimate benefit from it. Biden would have three more years, before the 2024 U.S. presidential election, to find mutual trust between Iran and the United States. Iranian leaders might more likely be ready to accept a new comprehensive agreement with the West.
Yousof Azizi is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy at Virginia Tech’s School of Public & International Affairs. He is working on his dissertation about U.S. foreign policy decision-making and Iran’s nuclear program. Yousof’s writings about “President Trump’s Iran Policy” appear in Encyclopedia of the American Presidency (4th ed.) as well as International Affairs Review.